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Declines put the Pier's future in question

A Coast Guard vessel passes in front of the Pier near sunset Thursday. In May, the City Council will decide whether to move forward with a process to determine future uses of the St. Petersburg icon.

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times

A Coast Guard vessel passes in front of the Pier near sunset Thursday. In May, the City Council will decide whether to move forward with a process to determine future uses of the St. Petersburg icon.

ST. PETERSBURG — The travel guides say "breathtaking," "festive," "the jewel of St. Petersburg."

But those judgments of the Pier are old, and these days visitors have a different view of an attraction once considered a must-see tour stop.

"It's hideous," said Julie Ziembra, 36, of Phoenix. "It's like the gift shops at a tollbooth rest stop."

"It's too touristy for locals," said Toni Latorre, 46, of St. Petersburg.

It has been 20 years since the city completed a major renovation of the Pier, and in that time the teal and pink inverted pyramid has gone from fab to drab.

Parts of the approach and base are corroded and cracked. Attendance estimates have dropped from nearly 2-million annual visitors in 2001 to less than 1.1-million in 2007. It has lost $1.5-million each year since at least 2005, according to budget figures. Pier retailers said they struggle to stay in the black; in some cases, sales are down by more than 10 percent.

City officials blame the Pier's troubles on the nation's sinking economy and a statewide tourism drought, but they acknowledge that the deteriorating structure needs a major makeover and have earmarked $50-million for improvements starting in 2012.

In May, the City Council will decide whether to move forward with a process to determine future uses of the Pier.

"This could be an entire revamping of what the Pier is," said council Chairman Jamie Bennett. "I like the Pier as it is right now ... but there will be a time when the pilings will give out. It's served its lifetime."

A trip to the Pier last week revealed families, tourists, workout enthusiasts and a smattering of fishermen milling about the attraction's half-empty food court and gift shops.

Pier merchants said the city's shrinking budget has cut into their marketing and event funding, making it difficult to attract new customers, including locals.

"This year is probably the worst we have ever seen," said Mary Jo Goodman, who with her husband, Bob, owns three specialty shops at the Pier: Bay Breeze, RainForest Gifts and Just Hats. "We stay here all night and no one is here."

Michael Knight, owner of MJ Toons, a gift shop and children's boutique, said his sales are down 10 percent.

"If you live in St. Petersburg, you're not going to come here and buy a mug that says Florida on it," he said. "We are not a Wal-Mart. We rely on our tourists."

In February, an anonymous letter blaming the Pier's management company for the attraction's troubles was sent to City Hall.

Urban Retail Properties, one of the largest management companies in the nation, has handled the Pier's day-to-day activities for the city since 2001.

City leaders said Urban Retail is doing a good job. The company has orders to reduce spending while maintaining a high level of activity.

"Everyone is nervous about the future. That's normal," said Don Paul, Pier manager. "We are competing with the Disneys and the Busch Gardens of the world. It's tough."

To attract locals, Urban Retail offers free jazz concerts at the Pier on Sundays. In February, it added live music on Saturdays. The company has also revamped the Pier's Web site, stpete-pier.com, to include insider tips on local attractions. The site received 1.7-million hits last year.

It is difficult to gauge whether these efforts are helping.

In December, a slow tourism month, the Pier launched a marketing campaign targeting Christmas shoppers. Sales did not improve.

"We just couldn't convince people," said Susan Robertson, the Pier's marketing manager.

Meanwhile, a steady stream of setbacks have raised questions about the Pier's viability.

Great Explorations, a children's museum, moved from the Pier's third floor to Sunken Gardens in 2003. The Arts Center used the area for gallery space before moving on in 2005. The third floor has been vacant since.

To save money, weekly senior dances were scaled back to twice-a-month gatherings in 2007. The Pier is also considering offering face painting only on Saturdays instead of both weekend days.

Even more troublesome, the Pier Aquarium, an attraction recognized for bringing locals to the Pier, is shopping around for a new home.

Retailers said the loss would be a major blow, but not everyone is worried.

"We are thriving," said Elisabet Silva, manager of the Columbia Restaurant, where sale figures are on the rise. "If you have a good product combined with a great view and wonderful service, you should have your customers coming back."

Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.

>>by the numbers

The Pier

1,900,000

Estimated attendance 2001

1,090,000

Estimated attendance 2007

$1.5-million

City subsidies in 2007

Declines put the Pier's future in question 04/19/08 [Last modified: Thursday, April 24, 2008 6:20pm]

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